One purpose of charter schools is to serve as laboratories of innovation for public education—a deliberate effort to do things differently than the long-entrenched traditional district model. That includes serving students who are at high risk of dropping out of school—or indeed have already done so—by educating them in separate schools or programs designed to address their needs. A new issue brief from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools provides a detailed overview of this approach, which the authors call “alternative education campuses” (AECs).
Different states use their own terms—such as transfer school, second chance, dropout prevention and recovery, or options school—to denote a building or program intended to serve students who have had difficulty progressing to completion in a typical education environment. Among other constituents, AECs are commonly employed to serve students who are pregnant or parenting, with criminal records, who are overage and lacking credits, and who have experienced chronic homelessness. AEC placements are meant to help students overcome these roadblocks while also helping them move forward to achieve their academic goals. Often in AECs, the goals themselves vary based on individuals’ experiences and current needs.
The issue brief focuses on stand-alone AECs in the thirty-four states (and the District of Columbia) that had charter school laws on the books during the 2021–22 school year. It does not include district, charter, or state-run programs held within larger, non-AEC, general education schools. In the 2021–22 school year, 2,756 AEC campuses operated in these states, and 555 (20 percent) were charter schools. As of fall 2021, a total of 336,393 students were enrolled in these AECs, with 141,669 (42 percent) of them in charter AECs. As charter schools serve just 7.2 percent of all public school students nationally, the high percentage of charter AEC schools and students is striking.
Looking specifically at charter AEC students, 95 percent were in high school grades, though students as young as fourth grade were included in the analysis. Approximately half of the students were female, 74 percent were students of color—including 47 percent who identified as Hispanic—68 percent were from low-income households, 16 percent were students with disabilities, and 10 percent were English Learners.
It’s difficult to tell how well charter AECs serve these students, as accountability measures run the gamut from traditional high school test scores and graduation rates to less conventional GED and career certification completion. Different states, different school types, different student compositions, and different ages result in a maze of measures that are difficult to directly compare. But the analysts did an admirable job untangling them.
To wit: They were only able to gather consistent cohort graduation data for AECs in ten states which reported four-, five-, and six-year rates. This ends up being a small subset of the total for both charter and district AECs, but the data indicate that students who remain enrolled in AECs for a longer time are more likely to graduate (though charter AECs slightly lag their district counterparts for each cohort). Similarly, in states where data were available and direct comparisons could accurately be made, the average state test score proficiency rates among charter AECs for the 2020–21 school year were 24 percent for English language arts and 14 percent for math. These (very low) rates are slightly better than those of district AECs.
AECs often have very different goals for the students they serve, however, including credentialing, job training, and catching up with high school course credits previously missed. Improving state test scores, analysts suggest, is often a less-pressing concern for AEC leaders and students. While the issue brief does not recommend eliminating such traditional measures from AEC accountability structures, it does call for a wider and more diverse set of metrics, including measures based on the goals of any given AEC. That is, if students earning high-demand industry credentials is a central part of the AEC mission, then which credentials and how many their students earn should be as important—or maybe even more important—than test scores or high school diploma attainment.
In the end, the recommendations are a mix of the flexibility described above and some across-the-board standardization in terms of both identification of AECs and defining accountability structures. The authors point to the work of the National Charter Schools Institute’s Advancing Great Authorizing and Modeling Excellence (A-GAME) initiative, in which the Fordham Foundation participates. A-GAME focuses specifically on charter authorizers, and its AEC-related recommendations include having a clear and standardized definition of which schools are identified as AECs, as well as making sure that authorizers partner with AECs to develop evaluation goals. At the same time, those evaluation goals should include as many non-traditional measures and assessments as are possible and relevant (including universals like school climate and student engagement), focus on both growth and achievement when using with traditional test score data, and include school site reviews as a way to observe school quality.
The brief describes a unique prescription for the most specialized of schools, and one its authors feel that charters are far more adept to fill than districts.
SOURCE: Issue Brief, “Going the Extra Mile: An overview of charter school alternative education campuses,” National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (June 2023).